PUTTING a good steak on the table is an Australian obsession that ranks alongside owning your own home and seeing your footy team to a premiership.
Unlike any other country in the world, buying good beef and lamb every day of the week here is not a lottery.
That’s because our red meat industry has defined the pathways to consistently good eating quality and set up an effective grading system based on what consumers value, such as tenderness, taste and predictability.
It’s called Meat Standards Australia (MSA) and it celebrates its 20th anniversary today.
Aside from refrigeration and transport, MSA has changed the beef and sheepmeat trade more than any other development.
But like anything revolutionary, it required a cultural change, a transformation of the thinking of an entire industry.
As such, MSA’s history is sprinkled with colourful tales and rich characters with a “do or die” attitude.
For one of its key architects, former producer, feedlotter and butcher shop owner Rod Polkinghorne, the man who has chaired the MSA Pathways Committee since its inception, MSA’s greatest feat is it delivered “a whole industry which understands the eating quality discussion.”
“Our average farmer thinks he is producing a meal,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
“The average beef farmer overseas thinks he is producing a beast.”
There was a giant industry benefit long before it was reflected in big MSA numbers that no one had planned for, he said.
That was the constant talk about eating quality, something that happened in Australia long before it did in the United States, Europe or anywhere else in the world.
“Abattoirs who weren’t on board with MSA still picked up a lot of the research data, the technologies and the ideas where it made commercial sense,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
“MSA has delivered much more than we can measure.”
Consumer is king
Today, there is widespread acceptance the consumer is king and quality is the only way Australian beef and lamb can compete on a global stage.
But that wasn’t always the case.
In the days before MSA, most players in the beef world took the view they knew a good cut of meat when they saw it and it was their job to tell consumers what was good and what they wanted.
In the early 1990s, beef sales were in decline and industry leaders had identified it was tough meat and an inconsistent eating experience that was turning consumers away.
“It was the sense of panic stemming from this that forced the industry’s hand,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
The first ever meat industry strategic plan, commissioned by the Meat Research Corporation (MRC), which preceded Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), identified eating quality as a key issue.
Lot feeders were leading the charge for grading at the time. They had already invested heavily in building a reputation for reliable quality from grainfed beef.
The idea of beef grading had been in the pipeline for 20 years prior to the launch of MSA, according to Dr Polkinghorne.
Running parallel was the establishment of the first Beef CRC, with improved eating quality the central objective.
The pivotal point was the Australian Lot Feeders Association (ALFA) receiving Commonwealth funding to develop beef branding.
“The thought was we needed to do some consumer work to establish the way forward with brands,” he said.
Teaming up with MRC’s John Webster, the “pioneers” went to abattoirs in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, selected beef that fitted into various marbling categories and took the samples to consumers.
“We realised we knew nothing,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
“Consumers were rating samples both 20 and 80 out of 100 that we thought was identical, beef which had come off carcases with similar specifications.
“The things we’d been advocating, such as sex and dentition, didn’t deliver any consistent consumer outcome whatsoever.”
That first consumer insight work also involved displaying meat raw and asking how a consumer thought it might eat.
“Consumers invariably said the marbled beef and the cuts with fat on the edge would be the worst but when they ate it, it was the reverse.”
So it was back to the drawing board, this time with trials of critical control points such as Brahman content, no history of illness, direct to slaughter, zero teeth and a certain pH.
Over six months, 60,000 carcases were graded by Jason Strong.
But consumers did not rate the meat graded high quality any different to that graded low.
“The realisation set in that a carcase grade only sorted carcasses into groups that looked the same but was totally ineffective in terms of providing any useful information to the consumer who wanted to buy a meal of assured eating quality - there being somewhere around 500 different meals in a beef carcase,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
“We took a deep breath and tried again, this time evaluating chiller and electrical stimulation interactions.”
Finally there were real consumer differences.
“That put us on the track that a core issue is getting the right relationship between pH and temperature,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
“It showed us how animals are handled just before they are killed is critical.
“We were also learning we had to grade individual muscles and cuts rather than the carcase as a unit.”
ALFA formed Australian Meat Standards, headed up by Dian Coffey, which established an independent Australian quality grading system. Original work through AMS was eventually absorbed into MSA.
Then came the MSA pathways committee - a group of scientists looking at what the data said and using that to set the initial standards for the program.
Key scientists involved have included John Thompson, Robyn Warner, Ray Watson,Mary Rooke, Judy Philpott, Dave Pethick and Janine Lau.
A lot of early work went into coming up with rigorous consumer protocols that are still in use today, Dr Polkinghorne said.
Over the years, the standards have evolved as more and more science has come to hand, and the number of MSA pathways has grown exponentially, but criteria such as a pH window and 3mm fat on the rib have remained, together with marbling and ossification, although the calculations have been continually refined and the number of muscles and cooking methods considerably expanded.
PRODUCERS were enthusiastic about an eating quality program from the day it was launched, according to one of MSA’s chief instigators Dr Rod Polkinghorne.
However, there was big pushback from processors, who saw it as too difficult and costly and weren’t convinced the consumer insight work was accurate.
Early processor adopters sold their product to butcher shops and food service operators, who came straight back asking for more because customer complaints quickly dried up.
That led to premiums.
As those advantages become clear to other processors, MSA adoption spread.
On the supermarket front, there was strong support at a research level but holding things back was the issue of how they could differentiate within the program.
“When Woolworths came on board around 2005, it pushed big numbers into MSA,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
By 2010 it had become difficult to sell meat without the MSA mark.
Key to the success of MSA, according to Dr Polkinghorne, has been staying true to what the consumer and the data says.
“We had to adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ approach,” he said.
“From day one, we said there is to be no industry politics entered into.
“We’ve managed to hold that line, although there has been a lot of blood spilt to do it.”
At MSA pathway meetings, an empty chair representing the consumer was always sat at the table.
“We’d refer to that empty chair constantly and whatever was coming from the consumer, that’s the end of it,” he said.
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